Updated: 2012-09-29 10:48
By Pauline D. Loh and Fan Zhen (China Daily)
Piles of black and brown caviar, adorned with a bright green watercress coulis, appeal to both the eyes and taste buds. Photos by Fan Zhen / China Daily
Yannick Alleno is back in Beijing with an autumn menu that is simple, yet decadent. Pauline D. Loh and Fan Zhen share a tasting menu for two that starts with a platter of sturgeon roe.
Made in China? Who would have thought these plump, briny pearls of dark brown and gray originated in China, or that they already have the stamp of approval from a top Michelin-starred chef who rates them as one of the best farm-raised caviar he has ever tasted.
You know all about Beluga, Ossetra and Sevruga. Now you can complete the full acronym and add Schrencki caviar to the list.
Our tasting team is introduced to this uniquely Chinese-farmed caviar by Yannick Alleno, who had flown to Beijing specially to celebrate the first anniversary of his Stay Restaurant at the Shangri-La with a brand new autumn menu.
In an exclusive tasting for only two, this chef of few words took the menu away from our hands with an "I will take care of you", and returns to the kitchen to orchestrate a symphony that sings in our mouths.
First on the table was a bone china platter decorated in autumn hues.
On a dark amber bed of jellied beef consomme, six generous piles of black and brown caviar glistened. As we gazed at the delicacy in admiration, a bright green watercress coulis is spooned onto our plates, adding both visual appeal and a freshness to compliment the deep flavors of the caviar.
As we carefully spoon wobbly consomme gel, caviar and coulis into our mouths, there is nothing more to say.
The caviar pearls pop with a satisfaction that is grounded by the earthiness of the beef consomme, a double whammy flavor layer that adds depth to epicurean perfection. The slight sharpness of the watercress coulis cleanses the palate ready for the next mouthful.
News reports of the Chinese caviar farms first started appearing early this year, after a decade of research and experiments finally bore fruit. It is truly heartwarming to know that a chef of Alleno's caliber has chosen to honor local products and recognize their quality.
Incidentally, if you are curious, the sturgeons are raised in Qiandaohu, or Thousand Island Lake, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, where the fish has been reared for the last decade or so from millions of fingerlings first imported from Russia. The sturgeon eggs are only harvested from fish that are 8 years old and above which have been carefully pampered so they are always in top condition.
The perfectly orchestrated platter at Stay will set you back about 500 yuan ($80), while 100 g of unadorned caviar served with blinis and condiments will give you very little change from 2,000 yuan. But we say, support Chinese caviar and splurge on a sensational treat.
Even as we licked our lips and savored the aftertaste of the briny caviar, we were tempted next by a prettily presented duck dumpling dotted with cherry syrup.
Alleno's food has inimitable style. While flavors are rich and meticulously matched, there is always a signature touch of freshness. And so the duck is confitted, shredded and stuffed into what is basically a giant ravioli, or as he prefers to call it, a gyoza.
It is a very rich dish that resonates with a vigor that suits the cooling season, with tiny ruby spots of cherry juice reduction on the dumpling glowing like pomegranates in the fall. Alleno tantalizes further with three cherry halves dotting the plate, and each is greedily consumed for the almond scent that compliments the golden tones of duck so well.
A white cod follows, so tenderly immersed in lightly salted butter in a gentle cooking process that the fillet keeps its immaculate snowiness. The translucent whiteness of the fish is set off by little piles of yellow and green zucchini spaghetti topped by a zucchini flower petal tempura.
By the time the Kobe beef fillet appears, we are near satiation. But the beef is irresistible. Medium rare fillets sit between a parmesan biscuit base and a confit of sweet shallot and parsley and go down so easily we are amazed we actually still had room.
Next, our willpower is seriously challenged by Stay's pastry ribbon of desserts. It is such a glorious glimpse into pastry paradise that our forks cannot be stilled. Besides, the presentation is so unusual that it is worth paying the price just to experience the decadence of the feast.
Pastry chef Fabian Couteau is an artist, and every sweet creation he places in Stay's Pastry Library is a work of art, both for the eye and the sweet tooth.
Taking pride of place on the specially designed steel ribbon platter is the Saint Honore, a classic French dessert of whipped cream flavored with vanilla sandwiched between layers of flaky puff pastry. But it is the chestnut and cognac pie that draws our attention this time, mainly because the palate veers toward seasonal choices.
As we stagger out of the restaurant replete with all the good things in life that are best represented by good company and even better food, we are already planning our next meal at Stay.
Indeed, if we could, we would have stayed, just as Alleno plans, but we had to hurry back to meet deadlines.
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Cod and zucchini is another creation by Yannick Alleno.